What Google's Android means for Microsoft

Like an aging heavyweight titleholder talking smack during the pre-fight weigh-in, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer called out Google during a speech last week in Tokyo, denying the search giant poses any kind of serious threat to the software kingpin. "Google is not ahead of us," insisted Ballmer, in Japan to launch Microsoft's Windows Live Services suite. "In the area of search specifically, Google would lead." On the subject of Google's Android mobile operating system, Ballmer had even less to say, pointing out the difficulty of commenting on a platform that is still "just words on paper."

Ballmer's right about the embryonic Android, of course, but it doesn't alter the sense the two technology powerhouses are on a collision course. Consider Ballmer's CTIA Wireless I.T. and Entertainment keynote address from a few weeks back, where he touted Microsoft's growing investment in both mobile devices and the services platform around them, complete with support for rich applications development, thin client-style applications and rich APIs for web services. "They're all available for third-party innovation," Ballmer said at CTIA. "The key thing is to provide consistent platforms across all phones and to leverage the knowledge that comes from writing for PCs. The notion of Windows Mobile as a platform is most important of all."

What Ballmer outlined is a mobile vision remarkably similar in principle to Android and the Google-led Open Handset Alliance, and his comments underscore just how closely the companies' fates will intertwine in the years to come. But Google usually comes out on top in every market it chooses to explore, and that track record certainly must give Microsoft pause. Android may exist as little more than words on paper, but when the paper in question is Google corporate letterhead, the words bear a whole different meaning. -Jason